The Unexpected Duty of Brands: To Save American Democracy

April 8, 2021

The Unexpected Duty of Brands: To Save American Democracy

Drew Train, Sarah Kasarsky

In 2021, brands are not doing enough to stand up for their consumers’ and employees’ fundamental rights. As state lawmakers file hundreds of bills to restrict voting access in a majority of states - including absentee voting restrictions, criminal disenfranchisement and more racially pointed laws like prohibiting early voting on Sundays to restrict Black (and predominantly democratic) voters -  many of the nation’s largest brands have fallen silent.And those who have spoken out have done just that - spoken. Their words have yet to translate into meaningful action.  

This is in stark contrast to the fervor with which the nation’s leading brands - from Coca-Cola to American Airlines to Bank of America - responded to the social and political issues that made headlines last year. During a global pandemic, a vital election season and an apex of racial injustice, brands such as these assumed the roles of community organizers, activists and public health advocates, driving cultural conversation and calls to action nationwide through billboards, social media and in workplaces

The disparity in brand response to the current issue of voting rights, as compared to their urgency for activism in 2020, cannot be attributed to lack of desire for them to take action. OBERLAND conducted a survey of 10,000 consumers of the nation’s largest, publicly traded brands - Petsmart, CircleK, Sprouts, Delta Air Lines, The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Bank of America, Aramark, Rite Aid, PNC Financial Services Group, JCPenney, Whole Foods Market, Dell, AT&T, American Airlines and Pizza Hut - which revealed that 83% of these companies’ consumers believe the corporations have a duty to protect their - and their employees' - right to vote. 

This response aligns with trends showing that a majority of Americans increasingly expect brands to play a role in social and political issues. This sentiment is particularly strong among Gen Z consumers, 35% of whom stopped buying from brands who did not speak out at the height of the BLM movement last year. These expectations bleed into the professional realm, as 73% of Americans say they would not apply to a company that didn’t share their values. But, this does have a positive effect on business returns; employees are 40% more likely to stay at companies who take a stand on social issues like voter suppression and show 1.4x more engagement in day-to-day tasks when employed by brands they feel are purpose-driven.

Given the evidence, political ties complicate a seemingly clear path for response and action. Numerous corporations like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and Home Depot have given money to legislation suppressing the right to vote in recent years. This is likely a strategic play to attract investor support and raise corporate profiles. All to say, brands are finding themselves at a complex crossroads: they inserted themselves into the realm of activism in 2020, showing their consumers and employees - the same individuals who will be affected by voter suppression legislation - that they are willing to stand up for their rights. This has rightfully spurred expectations from consumers and employees that brands will, once again, act in their interests. However, many brands are financially and socially tied to the politicians and investors who are fueling these restrictive measures. 

At the end of the day, companies who committed to taking action for racial equity, political togetherness and community reform over the past year must put their money where their mouth is by taking a stand against voter suppression. Saying a bill is “unacceptable” is not enough. Following the lead of Kenneth Chenault and Kenneth Frazier is a great first step -  but it’s not the end of the road. Those who stay silent and those who do not back up words with action risk losing both consumer and employee loyalty and satisfaction. And with that, goes your business - no matter how many political allies you have. 

So, brands: this is your opportunity to show your consumers and employees that you truly have their rights, lives and interests at the core of your business. How can you walk the walk? OBERLAND research found that nearly half of Americans who consume the nation’s largest brands want them to set up partnerships or recurring donations with voter rights organizations like More Than a Vote, The New Georgia Project and Fair Fight. This sentiment was amplified by millennial consumers, more than half of whom said this action should be prioritized. 50% of the companies’ Black consumers, who are disproportionately affected by the suppressive legislation, want to see brands launch campaigns denouncing legislation that suppresses the right to vote.

A final plea to corporations: It’s your DUTY to stand up for your consumers and employees by fighting against voter suppression bills. You have the connections and resources to change the minds of politicians. CEOs: make your brand all you promised it to be in 2020. And - your business will thank you.

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